Celebrating a historic bicycle adventure from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe
By Kurt Gensheimer
It all started with a photograph. Jeff Barker of El Dorado Hills, California was looking through historical photos on the Center for Sacramento History’s Facebook page when he came across a photograph from 1917 of a bicyclist posing at a sign on Echo Summit above South Lake Tahoe. As a lifelong mountain biker and self described adventure rider, Barker’s interest was immediately piqued; who were these guys and what route did they pedal back then?
Barker dug a little deeper into the Center for Sacramento History’s archives and discovered that two young men, Eugene Hepting and Abbie Budd, had ridden their bikes 105 miles from downtown Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe in a mere 17 hours and 29 minutes on October 19, 1917, establishing a record for the feat that as far as Barker knows, has never been repeated.
“I thought it was so cool that these guys rode their bikes from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe, especially considering they were on primitive bikes with only one gear and the entire route was pretty much dirt, decomposed granite and sand,” said Barker. “They were mountain biking sixty years before mountain biking became a thing.”
Barker continued to search the archives and found more photographs of Hepting and Budd’s bicycle adventure, which roughly followed what is today’s Highway 50 up the South Fork American River Canyon to Echo Summit, then down Meyers Grade into Meyers and on to Lake Tahoe. Barker also learned the record setters turned around the very next day and rode all the way back to Sacramento to attend a bike club meeting. This impressive ride wasn’t Hepting’s only bicycle endeavor; he was a very well known and accomplished competitive cyclist in Sacramento who also carried a camera everywhere he rode.
“Based on all the pictures he took that are now at the Center for Sacramento History, Hepting has been referred to as Google Street View a hundred years before it existed,” said Barker. “Hepting’s pictures are an invaluable part of Sacramento history, and it’s been so fascinating discovering all the places he rode and seeing what the communities around Sacramento looked like decades ago.”
Hepting and Budd were on the tail end of the bicycle’s overarching popularity in mainstream American society. In the first two decades of the 20th century, Americans used the bicycle as a primary means of transportation, as it was far more reliable than a horse and much more simple and affordable than an automobile. But soon after Hepting and Budd’s ride from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe, the automobile gained significant popularity, manifesting the end of the bicycle era.
“It was 2014 when I learned of Hepting and Budd’s ride,” said Barker. “I realized the 100 year anniversary of their ride was coming up in a few years and thought it would be really cool to commemorate it by doing the ride again, but on modern bicycles and on a mostly dirt route that mirrored their route.”
In September of 2016 Barker made it official and created a Facebook event page titled “Centennial Ride: Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe 100 years later”. The response was far bigger than what Barker anticipated.
“Immediately after creating the page I had people contacting me about the ride and asking what the route was going to be and many other logistical questions,” said Barker. “I was really hoping at least a few people would do this ride with me, but became worried that it might get ‘too big’ and require too much hand-holding. I just wanted this to be a no-frills adventure to commemorate what Hepting and Budd did in 1917. No fees, no formal support, no liability and no whining.”
Barker started digging into potential routes, and considering much of the route Hepting and Budd took along today’s Highway 50 is now all pavement, Barker’s route would have to be a variation, especially considering he wanted to keep the ride on as much dirt as possible.
The route Barker worked out ended up being 145 miles long, highlighted by the American River Bike Trail from Sacramento to Folsom, a trail originally funded and constructed by the Capital City Wheelmen in the early 1900s. Next was the El Dorado Trail, a 35-mile railroad route, partially converted to a multi-use trail, running from the El Dorado County line on the west side up to the town of Camino on the east side. The group then tackled the historic Pony Express Trail from near Kyburz to Echo Summit, a rugged and at times impossibly steep singletrack trail. The route offered a wide range of characteristics from smooth, easy pedaling paved trail on the American River Bike Trail to primitive backcountry riding on the Pony Express Trail, almost non-existent in some places, making for very slow going at times.
A total of 15 riders participated in at least a portion of the route, with six completing the entire 145 mile adventure and three riding from Folsom to Echo Summit. Equipment ranged from narrow tire cyclocross bikes to full-suspension trail bikes. Some riders like Barker went credit card-style, opting to pack minimal gear, staying the night at accommodations in Pollock Pines and Strawberry, while a few other riders like Will Scheel bikepacked, carrying all the gear needed to camp along the way.
“Will is so throwback; he’s a reincarnation of Hepting,” said Barker. “He rides his bike everywhere, over long distances and takes tons of photos. He and I rode the same route over two-and-a-half days, but he was on a fully loaded bike. After we reached Tahoe, Will kept riding up to Truckee, camped, then worked his way back on the Foresthill Divide to Auburn, then to Sacramento just like Hepting would have.”
Robert Goss, a Folsom Parks and Recreation Director, completed the entire route in two days with Cody Schwartz, a 19-year-old Civil Engineering student at Sacramento State University and mountain bike racer for Cycling Development/Scott USA.
“Being so overgeared on my cyclocross bike, I could really appreciate Hepting and Budd’s fitness and strength to ride over the Sierra with so few gear choices,” said Goss. “I now have a greater appreciation for the amazing horses and riders that conquered the Sierra on practically a deer trail with steep pitches and tree falls. What we call an epic adventure was just a day at the office for the hearty souls of the Pony Express.”
“It was really hard to conceptualize that we were riding from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe,” said Schwartz. “Even though parts of the Pony Express Trail required hiking and bush whacking, it exposed me to views along Highway 50 I would never have experienced otherwise. I’m not sure I would do it again on that route, but cresting Echo Summit and seeing the blue of Lake Tahoe was one of the most rewarding moments I’ve ever experienced.”
There were a couple viewpoints along the route that followed Hepting and Budd’s 1917 route, including a very cool now-and-then photograph of riders in the same shadow of Sugarloaf, a giant granite boulder outcropping just above Kyburz that’s unmistakable. And to properly commemorate the ride, Barker reconstructed the original Echo Pass sign that Hepting and Budd were photographed in front of; the photo that started it all for Barker.
“Where Highway 50 crosses Echo Summit today isn’t exactly where Hepting and Budd were pictured,” said Barker. “The old sign was just north of Highway 50 on Johnson Pass, so that’s where I put the replica, almost exactly where the original stood. Having the sign was actually really important, as it motivated a few people who otherwise wouldn’t have completed the ride. They wanted to reach that sign.”
Vida Morhain, her husband Bryan and friend Blaine Quillin rode 100 miles from Folsom to the sign on Echo Summit, a fulfilling challenge that taught her a little history along the way.
“Props to Jeff for all his time and efforts spent organizing this tribute ride,” said Morhain. “I believe it was fate that he stumbled upon this gem about Hepting and Budd. It was as if this ride was meant to be. Hepting and Budd would have been stoked!”
Morhain also gained a new appreciation for adventure after completing the ride.
“Challenge and adventure is inherent in many of us, but the preference by which adventure is accomplished is different for each individual,” said Morhain. “Whether it be on foot, horse or bicycle, I maintain a healthy respect for all seeking to fulfill the call for adventure, because in the end, it’s about the journey.”
In the afterglow of the ride, Barker’s been thinking about the possibility of developing an official off-road cycling route between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe, promoting adventure, multi-use recreation and connectivity between where people live and where they play. Barker’s also having to answer a new question.
“Folks are asking if I’m doing the ride again next year. Considering this was a centennial ride, I tell them maybe in another 100 years! As much as this was me jonesing for an epic adventure, it was also a history lesson and celebration of two young pioneers who did amazing things on their bikes. What I would love most is to track down a descendant of Hepting and Budd and share this story with them. Being photographed riding some of the exact same spots as Eugene and Abbie one-hundred years later made this ride really special; a ride I’ll never forget.”